Florida's COVID-19 outbreak (and Mullen's diagnosis) latest reminder of our strange new normal
What a strange, sobering week it has been for the Florida football program.
Just a little over a week ago, the Gators rolled into College Station as a top 5 team with an electric, championship-caliber offense and undefeated season aspirations. They left Kyle Field with an L, their lethal offense undone by a leaky defense.
Unexpected losses lead to soul-searching, and the Gators left Texas taking inventory of all that was going wrong on defense. A unit that finished in the top 10 in the country a season prior and returned many key pieces was putrid, ranked in the bottom 5 in all of college football in multiple categories. There was also the obvious chance it could get worse before it got better. Another awesome offense was headed to town in the form of LSU, and like Texas A&M before them, the Tigers would be a desperate team out to make a point after a disappointing 1-2 start.
The loss and the defensive issues culminated in another development. For the first time in the Dan Mullen era, a prideful, championship-starved fanbase was producing noise in the system. Gators fans either wanted Todd Grantham out or wondered aloud if this defense could be fixed, and a coaching staff that had operated with nothing but gentle, autumn breezes and tailwinds suddenly found itself facing heat for the first time since it arrived in Gainesville to resuscitate a four-win program in late 2017.
These would be heady challenges in a normal year, and with dominant rival Georgia looming on the horizon, the Gators had little time to fix it.
But nothing about 2020 is normal, and 2020 needs to have its say with the Florida football program.
Most of the background is well-known by now.
After Florida lost to the Aggies in a Kyle Field that a longtime Aggies beat writer told me was “about half full and certainly over the proscribed COVID capacity guidelines,” a visibly irritated Mullen urged the Florida administration to follow the suggestion of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that it was now safe to lift attendance restrictions at sporting events and fill The Swamp for the LSU game.
Mullen’s comments were misguided from both a football standpoint and a science standpoint.
Football-wise, there was just no chance that the crowd at Kyle Field, even half-full, was why Florida lost to Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M. The Gators lost because they couldn’t cover any Aggies receivers, couldn’t stop the power and the counter in the run game, didn’t tackle well and generally played some of the worst defense a team in orange and blue has played in decades.
From a science standpoint, well, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin had it right when he said this early last week:
“Coaches sometimes say things that are outside their area of expertise. And, you know, they are really good at what they do. Dan is really good at calling plays.”
It’s just not safe to fill stadiums to the brim yet. Even as the economy reopeons and claws its way back, the stadium question has built bipartisan consensus. Red state, purple state or blue state, no one in the country has been filling football stadiums to capacity while the virus still rages and a second wave threatens, and with Florida among the national leaders in COVID-19 related deaths, Mullen’s comments were a bit tone-deaf.
Fortunately for all, the UF administration wasn’t listening. The school, which has a world-renowned infectious disease department, reiterated that it would listen to its tremendous doctors and experts and cap attendance at 20 percent, rather than the governor’s suggestion of 100 percent.
As “Pack the Swamp” Gate was unfolding, Florida’s team was being ripped by a coronavirus outbreak of its own. Over the past week, as first reported by the Independent Florida Alligator, 21 Florida players and coaches tested positive for COVID-19. Those tests forced the postponement of Florida’s games against LSU to Dec. 12 and Missouri to Halloween, and that added immense stress to an SEC office already juggling tight scheduling issues and the challenge of enforcing COVID-19 protocols. Nothing about playing this college football season is easy, and the outbreak of COVID-19 at multiple SEC programs, coupled with the SEC levying massive fines on multiple member schools for blatantly disregarding league-established COVID-19 protocols, was just the latest reminder of the strange new normal.
There’s no need to bury Mullen here.
A 48-year-old husband and father first, Mullen said things in the heat of a tough moment that, upon a few days’ reflection, he walked back.
Dan Mullen finally walks back Saturday comments. Apologizes if he offended anybody. Also says gators are testing every day. Then nobody could here what he said next
— Pat Dooley (@pat_dooley) October 14, 2020
And before anyone thinks Mullen is insensitive to the tough challenges and tragedies COVID-19 can bring, let me share a brief story about the kind of person he is. Earlier this year, I became very sick, requring specialized antivirals and multiple rounds of antibiotics related to illness complications. I’ve been writing about Florida for only a few years, and unlike the many fantastic beat writers who cover the Gators’ program, I’m not around every day. That didn’t matter to Dan Mullen, who managed to find my phone number and send me a message wishing me well and urging me to get better.
Mullen is a players-first and people-first coach. He was among the first in the sport to walk side-by-side with his players this summer in their fights against racism. Just two weeks ago, he beamed about how proud he was of former quarterback Feleipe Franks, who had helped win a big game for Arkansas. He used his social media and press conference platforms to urge his staff to listen to what his players had to say about social justice issues, because he believes that if we just listened to each other more, maybe we’d find that what we have in common far outweighs our differences.
People make mistakes, and college football coaches are people.
Now Mullen is grappling with illness, self-isolation, an uncertain schedule and a team full of positive tests that can’t operate its football facility and practice. It’s tough to improve a defense if you can’t practice.
Fortunately for now, as far as we know, no one within the program or exposed to those in it has become seriously ill. A disease with long-term consequences that are still unknown, COVID-19 isn’t just about death rates. If a player or coach becomes seriously ill, there’s a risk of lifelong complications. That risk, however small, is a reminder that there are things much bigger than football.
In the end, the incident is a sobering reminder of the challenges of completing the college football season in this strange new reality. Starting the season with a very good plan, the SEC seemed to get off on the right foot. But as virus rates spike around the coutnry again this autumn, the risk of spreader events is high, and it’s a risk compounded by too many programs that appeared, until the SEC dropped the hammer this week, too reluctant to follow league guidelines created by medical doctors.
As the SEC runs out of rescheduling dates, false positives and other medical issues gum up the works and the league cycles through program outbreaks, the margin for error for finishing this season that has brought so much joy to people in an otherwise grim year grows smaller.
Hopefully, Florida is an object lesson.
Before the Gators can get better on the field, they have to get healthy off it.